In almost every country in the world, average ages are rising fast, putting pressure on city councils, health-care systems, and national economies. And the solution may be the empowerment of older people themselves
A new graffiti crew, clutching canisters of green spray paint, is roaming the streets of Levenshulme, but they are not tagging walls. Instead, the “graffiti grannies” – a group of activist pensioners – in this postindustrial suburb of Manchester, England, mark every hole in the sidewalk that could trip them up, challenging the city council to bring in the pavers. As players in a growing “age-friendly” movement, they are part of a revolution in the ways that cities are adapting to their rapidly aging populations.
The demographic shifts under way across the globe are unprecedented. Experts like Paul Irving, the chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute in California, says the trend lines resemble a hockey stick: Life spans were flat throughout human history until they shot straight up in the past century.
By 2020, for the first time, there will be more people on earth age 60 or older than under age 5. By midcentury, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2 billion people – 22 percent of the global population – will be 60 or older, up from 900 million today.
In almost every country in the world, average ages are rising fast, putting pressure on city councils, health-care systems, and national economies. Japan, where 33 percent of the population is already over 60, is the world’s oldest nation, while Europe and the United States are quickly catching up.
Yet it is in developing countries, from Chile to China to Iran, where the rates of aging are the fastest today, often adding a new dimension to existing social conflicts and poverty.
“Global aging, along with climate change, may be the great challenge of this century,” says Mr. Irving. “Unless policies and practices and norms and culture are changed, we have a tremendous problem, and if they are changed we have a remarkable opportunity.”
The key to the future, he says, is “purposeful aging” that empowers older people themselves as the agents of change. “Purposeful aging recognizes that people who age with purpose – this sense of meaning, direction, and desire to contribute – don’t just help others, they help themselves as well.”
Cities are on the front lines of these shifts, as people worldwide flee the countryside. In the world’s richest nations, older populations are expanding today more quickly in cities than anywhere else, with metropolises already home to 43.2 percent of those over 65.
That prompted the WHO to launch a network of “age-friendly” cities in 2010 with about a dozen affiliates; since then about 320 communities have signed up to rethink their urban designs and social environments.
“Around the world populations are aging, more people are living in cities, and these are accompanied by other demographic changes – increased women in the workforce, migration towards cities and hence children living away from their parents. All of these demographic changes have huge implications for cities and communities,” says Alana Officer, senior health adviser at the WHO.
As their residents grow older, city governments are clearly going to have to undertake major long-term overhauls in housing and transport, for example. It is a necessary undertaking as “age friendliness” also benefits society as a whole, when governments and residents start focusing on the upside. Some companies are looking at ways to employ older people longer, utilizing their knowledge as they keep economies productive. Others are focusing on older people as a market opportunity.
If older people do not find it easier to engage in their communities and stay active, they will end up more dependent, and more expensive.
Developed Western countries are focusing mostly on aging cities. The government in China is more concerned by an aging countryside. Retirement homes, standard in the West, are revolutionary in China, where the millenniums-old tradition of filial piety makes caring for one’s parents an essential duty.
But as more and more young people seek jobs in the city, far from their parents’ homes, ancient traditions are eroding, however hard the authorities try to bolster them.
“Society is changing,” says Peng Xizhe, a professor of population and development at Fudan University in Shanghai. “On the one hand, it’s important to maintain the ... traditional arrangement for elderly support. But on the other hand, we have to find new ways of dealing with this.”
China has the most elderly people of any country in the world. More than 220 million people, or 16 percent of its population, are 60 or older. Demographers predict their numbers will rise to 490 million by 2050.
Who will look after them? Faraway children will never be able to provide their parents with daily care, points out Du Peng, director of the Center of Aging Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing. He says society as a whole must work to fill the gaps.
“We will have more and more old people who need long-term care, especially in rural areas,” he says. “Local communities are the best places to provide the support they need.”
An obligation for the young to look after aging parents is mandatory in some cultures, religion requires Muslims to care wholeheartedly for their aging parents, and in Iraq and many other Mideast countries such support is a cultural norm as well as a religious commitment, with three generations often living under one roof.
But the stress of three decades of perennial crises has shredded Iraq’s social fabric. “The sanctions, the wars, and the violence don’t give us time to educate our sons in good ways,” adds Leila Abdul-Hossein Hamza, director of the private Mercy Home for the Elderly, a charitable organization with an adjacent orphanage run by Shiite cleric Ayatollah Hussein Sadr.
Kadriyah Saleh, 75, a resident of the Mercy Home dressed in the black shroud favored by devout Shiite Iraqis, has suffered the effects of such violent social dislocation. “I feel shame when I mention my son,” she says, recounting how he was an interpreter for US forces, and then left for America in 2005.
“I never heard from him again,” says Ms. Saleh. “He never said goodbye. He could have come.” Neither of her two daughters visits her, either. Still, most Iraqi families care for their parents themselves, despite the challenges.
Africa’s challenge at the moment is less figuring out how to care for its older people, such as Ms. Masala, than thinking through what to do with its young people. And the elderly are playing a key role in shaping the next generation’s future.
“There’s often a perception that older people are vulnerable, frail, and irrelevant to what happens to young people, but we know that in reality the lives of older and younger people are closely linked – there is a skills and knowledge transfer there that needs to happen for society to function,” says Isabella Aboderin, a senior research scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya.
Sub-Saharan Africa is, by global standards, a dramatically young region. Sixty percent of its population is under 25, and there are nearly 13 people on the continent between the ages of 20 and 64 for every one person over 65 – more than three times the European ratio.
In South Africa the bonds between young and old often revolve around orphans. There are nearly 4 million of them, half of whom lost their parents to AIDS. Continent-wide, UNICEF estimates that half of Africa’s 132 million orphans live with their grandparents.
At one time, growing up with one’s grandparents around was the norm in Europe and the US, too. Now moves are afoot to re-create the sort of atmosphere that has gotten lost as family units in the West have shrunk.
It’s not every day that someone living in a retirement home break-dances his way to a TV game-show prize by hopping upside-down on his right hand 75 times in less than two minutes.
But Sores Duman, who managed that feat recently, is not your everyday retirement home resident. He is a 27-year-old student, one of six living at the Humanitas nursing home in the provincial Dutch town of Deventer.
The setup is part of a movement catching on around the world, from Cleveland, Ohio, to Helsinki, Finland: intergenerational living. Studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness among the elderly are killers; contact with younger people is good for their health. And contact with older people is good for the students, too.
Mr. Duman, his bushy black hair springing out from under a beanie, has lived in the nursing home for nine months and says his experience has reshaped his view of the world. “I used to look at elderly people and see their limits, what they couldn’t do,” he says. “Now I see their possibilities, what they can do. You have to see them as regular people, not as the elderly.”
The idea for an intergenerational nursing home came from Gea Sijpkes, the Humanitas director, who was searching for solutions amid government cuts to both elderly care and student aid. She offered rent-free rooms in her care home to local students in return for 30 hours a month of being a “good neighbor.”
“Maybe I can’t fix your bad knee, but I can make your living environment warm, funny, and surprising, a place you’d want to be,” she says.
With people living longer, researchers are uncovering many upsides to cross-generation cooperation. The wisdom and judgment and balance that come with age, combined with the energy and healthy risk-taking characteristics and creativity of youth, represents a really powerful opportunity for companies and countries.
How society embraces people living longer – at home, in the office, in the mall, or at church – will revolutionize the way people experience getting older.